Freedom of the City is not just for me... but for all the survivors of sexual violence

Tomorrow, Mary Crilly, of Cork Sexual Violence Centre, receives the Freedom of the City. COLETTE SHERIDAN spoke to her to find out about her work over the years and what this honour means to her
Freedom of the City is not just for me... but for all the survivors of sexual violence

Mary Crilly, Director, Sexual Violence Centre, 5, Camden Place, Cork. Picture: Larry Cummins

IN town the other day, Mary Crilly, CEO of the Sexual Violence Centre Cork (SVCC), was asked by two guys aged about 19 if it’s true she’s “getting the keys of the city”. When she said she is indeed being granted that honour, they said “You go, girl.” It’s a small example of how well Mary is regarded in her adopted city.

The 67-year-old Dubliner, who has been living in Cork for 45 years, feels “privileged” that she will be bestowed with the Freedom of Cork tomorrow, June 9, by the Lord Mayor, Cllr Colm Kelleher, in recognition of her tireless work in the area of sexual violence, domestic violence, sex trafficking, female genital mutilation and stalking.

You could say that Mary has come full circle in that her work is being acknowledged as important. It’s a far cry from how she was perceived 40 years ago as a founding member of the then Cork Rape Crisis Centre. (Its name was later changed to reflect all the work the centre does.)

 Aisling McEveney, Mary Crilly and Sola Twomey light candles and lay flowers at a candlelight vigil. Picture Dan Linehan
Aisling McEveney, Mary Crilly and Sola Twomey light candles and lay flowers at a candlelight vigil. Picture Dan Linehan

“Forty years ago, the centre was seen as a threat to family values,” says Mary. 

“Mother and baby homes, as they were called, were still part of society. There was a huge silence around all forms of sexual violence and it was impossible for victims to come forward. 

"There was little support and no voice speaking out and letting society know that sexual violence is never the victim’s fault.”

But Mary says some members of the general public welcomed the centre “as many were aware of friends or family who were abused in some way.

“ And remember, rape in marriage was legal until 1990. It was an era when there was no divorce and homosexuality was illegal. Ann Lovett, a 15- year-old girl, died in Granard, County Longford, after giving birth beside a grotto in 1984.”

Mary said some members of the gardaí “let it be known that the centre wasn’t wanted and others didn’t want to know or believe the prevalence of sexual violence.

“As with every organisation, there were members of the force who were very supportive. This relationship has definitely come full circle and the protective services units are very supportive.”

But the response from what Mary calls ‘official Ireland’ was dismissive.

“To now receive the Freedom of the City and for the city to recognise the extent of sexual violence is huge, not just for me, but for all survivors of sexual violence.”

Mary Crilly and Stevie G at an International Womens Day Flashmob, in Cork City. Picture: Damian Coleman 
Mary Crilly and Stevie G at an International Womens Day Flashmob, in Cork City. Picture: Damian Coleman 

In the early days, 50 to 60 women walked through the doors of 5, Camden Place every year. Now, over 500 victims of sexual violence (including some men) call to the centre annually and are put in touch with counsellors, are accompanied to the Sexual Assault Trauma Unit at the South Infirmary hospital and supported at court if needs be. Others make contact by ringing the free phone number or by going online.

Mary says that such was the perceived stigma associated with the centre’s work back then that people didn’t want to wear the centre’s t-shirts emblazoned with its name.

Mary, quietly spoken, says she had her feminist awakening when she was about 13 or 14.

“I had three brothers (only one of whom is still alive). Their friends’ conversations around women and girls had, I felt, a double standard. Women weren’t being treated the way they should be.”

Mary attended Marino Tech in Dublin, a school that at the time only provided education up to Intermediate Certificate level.

“As it happened, a secondary school, Whitehall House, opened. It was a 40 or 50 minute walk from where I lived. I went there because I wanted to do the Leaving Certificate and also, I just didn’t want to leave school, even though I was working in the evenings and weekends in a cinema.”

After the Leaving Cert, Mary joined the civil service. She worked in social welfare and was transferred to Cork.

“My first job in Cork was in the old labour exchange on South Terrace. I worked there for a few years in the dockers’ hatch. Talk about not understanding how Cork people spoke. With the dockers, you really had to be quick. But they were lovely.”

Mary Crilly, at Cork Sexual Violence Centre. Picture Larry Cummins
Mary Crilly, at Cork Sexual Violence Centre. Picture Larry Cummins

When Mary’s first child was born in 1980, followed by a second daughter a year later, she gave up her job. She was told by a neighbour that a rape crisis centre was going to open in Cork, initiated by women in academe and law. Mary was encouraged to get involved. She was thrown in at the deep end.

Was the fact that Mary had been sexually abused, over the course of a year, as a 12-year-old, a motivation for getting involved?

“I think it was, although not consciously. At the time, on my own with two children, I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. It was a really difficult time.

"Maybe a part of me felt I could get help this way. What happened to me is something that I totally minimised. But funnily enough, I was saying to clients it doesn’t matter what happens to you, it’s the impact on you. I just minimised what happened to me for years.”

Mary eventually went to counselling to deal with her experience of abuse. She says she didn’t feel the need to speak publicly about it.

“But a part of me was going, ‘Am I being false by not doing that?’ I want people to come in to the centre and to feel that we’re here for them.”

Mary didn’t want the story to be about her.

For the last 40 years, she has been “chipping away,” helping people who’ve suffered sexual violence and trying to change attitudes. She goes out to schools and colleges, giving talks and explaining why change needs to happen. She wants to “turn the world upside down” and praises the likes of Lavinia Kerwick, who went public about being raped, recounting the experience on the Gerry Ryan Show, talking about how the attack blighted her for years.

“I remember a man who’s a medical person saying to me that ‘only whores get raped’.”

With attitudes like that, Mary has her work cut out for her.

Does she think sexual violence will ever be eliminated?

“I think it can be. We’ve eliminated lots of things.”

She cites how society no longer thinks drink driving is acceptable and how the wearing of seat belts has been adopted across the board.

Mary says that there needs to be “political will” to get rid of sexual violence. More cases going to court would help.

Also, Mary says that sexual violence cases should be dealt with within a year of being reported, as opposed to three or even five years later.

She adds that males should call out their friends for being abusive too.

“Males will say they think it’s awful what is happening. But that’s not enough. 

"We all need to get a bit more uncomfortable and just call it out. Only a minority are doing it. The majority of men are not (sexually assaulting women). But the minority are tolerated and excused.

“You see people in court with character references. Sometimes these say that the person is of good character, even when they’ve already been convicted (on a prior occasion.) That has to change.”

Mary, who, at the age of 50, studied the psychology of criminal behaviour at UCC, followed by gaining a masters in women’s studies, is always pushing ahead. The SVCC, with UCC, is carrying out the Stalking and Harassment Ireland Study. Findings will be published in September.

How does she cope with exposure to the suffering of sexual violence victims?

“Over my lifetime, I did get depressed quite a lot and I sometimes have panic attacks. I could come out of court and just want to cry and despair. 

"It’s like being back in the ’80s. You have this adversarial system where the victim has no role in the case. (The victim is seen as a witness.) You’re back to arguing about consent. The system is not fit for purpose.

“I think what has saved me is having the energy to go out and talk to people about what we’re doing.”

The SVCC has seen 10,000 clients since it started registering numbers in the late ’80s.

Mary intends to remain at the SVCC for the next three years, making sure everything is in place before she retires. And even then, she would like to have a role at the centre.

What does she hope her legacy will be?

“I’d love to eradicate sexual violence. But if victim blaming could be eradicated, that would be great. It’s never the victim’s fault.”

For more see Freephone 1800 496 496.

Dr Catherine O'Sullivan, UCC. Picture: David Keane.
Dr Catherine O'Sullivan, UCC. Picture: David Keane.


Dr Catherine O'Sullivan, UCC law department and chair of the SVCC said: "Mary is a force of nature. In my work with her through my role on the SVCC board, I have been impressed by her resilience, her determination and her inexhaustibility. 

"She works tirelessly to help all who have experienced sexual and gender-based violence. One of her great insights has been that education and advocacy can prevent sexual violence. 

"To this end she visits secondary schools throughout Cork, has been a regular speaker at events at UCC and MTU and has been at the forefront of social media campaigns in Ireland including #AskConsent and #FixeditIreland. I know from talking with students that she inspires them and it is wonderful to see her honoured in this way."

Professor Caroline Fennell. Picture:Gareth Chaney/Collins
Professor Caroline Fennell. Picture:Gareth Chaney/Collins

Professor Emeritus of Law, UCC, Caroline Fennell: "Mary Crilly has an innate and steely sense of justice. 

"A committed and activist feminist, Mary battled long and hard in sometimes very dark times on behalf of others. 

"Never one to take an easy road or rush to quick judgement, Mary, in a well-informed, reflective and thoughtful manner changed forever the tenor of public discourse and debates on critical issues relating to crime, justice and women."

Catriona Twomey, Cork Penny Dinners. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Catriona Twomey, Cork Penny Dinners. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

Catriona Twomey of Cork Penny Dinners: "Mary is my all time hero, the greatest woman and role model I know and I am so delighted to be her friend as well. I love her to bits. She's powerful, strong, courageous and has the heart of a lion. What a woman!"

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